'ITV handing back its licence would be like a split in the medieval church'
Sunday 24 August 2008
Most people use the annual MacTaggart Lecture, which opens the Edinburgh International Television Festival, to apply for a new job or settle old scores.
Peter Fincham, who was notoriously thrown overboard by the BBC last year, over the Queen's hissy-fit that never was, decided to do neither. To the disappointment of his audience, all Fincham had to say about how he lost his job as controller of BBC1 was that, like the Titanic, the maiden voyage went quite well for a while, and that it only takes one iceberg and "last summer I hit mine".
Instead, Fincham, now director of television at ITV, attacked regulators for their narrow vision of public-service broadcasting, and told the industry that his solution for the future was Keep Television Popular.
Fincham, pictured, in a message that will go down well with his boss, Michael Grade, accused Ofcom, the communications regulator, of coming up with definitions of Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) that were a recipe for the niche, the marginal, the worthy.
"Try hanging that outside a West End theatre. See who buys a ticket," said Fincham. But why should that be a concern? ITV could always hand its licence back and go wholly commercial. That, he argued, would be like a split in the medieval church, with the BBC and Channel 4 taking the high road with public money, and the rest going the other way. "Do we really want that? I hope not. Television's at its best when high and low intertwine. Let's keep the road as wide as possible so we can all travel down it," he argued.
For Fincham the prescription for the future of ITV is simple – and he is almost certainly right – quality popular television that brings audiences together. It should be culturally rich, UK-based and running the full range of genres from drama and comedy to entertainment and factual, and to arts, sport and news.
"Television's been broad, inclusive and varied for 50 years – why on earth would it want to change now?" he asked.
Fincham may not want to see ITV handing back its licence, but clearly the argument in ITV on the issue has not been finally resolved.
In yesterday's session on "How to Save ITV", his marketing director colleague, Rupert Howell, came close to issuing an ultimatum to Ofcom that tough and long-overdue deregulation was now a necessity. "Let me be absolutely clear, if the gulf between the cost and benefit of ITV holding these licences widens, the licence handback becomes unarguable.
"All eyes are now on Ofcom's next PSB document, due out in September, when we will see whether or not they understand the necessity for urgent deregulation," said Howell, who nonetheless believes the future of ITV is already secure.
It all sounds like a pincer movement, with Fincham playing the good cop and Howell the bad cop.
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